- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 25, 2003

As many feared would happen, the fire season has started, and the Senate is still fiddling with the president’s Healthy Forests Initiative. While the House passed the bill (HR 1904) over a month ago, the Senate Agriculture Committee is only holding a full hearing on it today.

The timing is critical, since the season’s first big blaze ignited last week in Arizona. It has only been about one-quarter contained, and it has already consumed 345 homes and scorched about 25,000 acres. Fighting it so far has cost about $5 million and involved about 1,200 firefighters. Meanwhile, several other large forest fires are continuing to burn in New Mexico. Gov. Bill Richardson declared a state of emergency after one fire jumped the Rio Grande and forced the temporary evacuation of about 1,000 Albuquerque residents, including the mayor’s family.

Stories like that are likely to be repeated all summer. Experts don’t believe that this year’s fire season will be as bad as last year’s, during which over 67,000 wildfires scorched more than 6 million acres. However, a report issued by the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center earlier this month warned that conditions — below-average precipitation last winter coupled with an already dry summer — have set the stage for a terrible season. To date, over 625,000 acres have already burned, according to the National Fire Information Center. Seventy million acres are thought to be at extreme risk of experiencing wildfires.

Arizona’s vast conflagration started in an area of forest ravaged by bark beetles, one that might have been thinned under the Healthy Forests Initiative. Likewise, Colorado’s Hayman fire, which consumed almost 140,000 acres last year, might have been prevented if the Forest Service had been allowed to proceed with a planned tree-thinning project.

In fact, the provisions in the House-passed bill are not so different from the tree-thinning provisions that Sen. Tom Daschle tried to put into last year’s defense authorization. Recognizing that tree-thinning in South Dakota’s overstocked forests was necessary, Mr. Daschle inserted language exempting his state from the environmental regulations and lawsuits that slow such projects.

Earlier this year, the Bush administration announced that it plans to reduce restrictions on tree-thinning projects designed to reduce the risk of wildfires. California Gov. Gray Davis has also seen the need to do so. In March, he declared a state of emergency for three counties thought to be at high risk of catastrophic wildfires due to drought and bark beetle infestations. “My action cuts the red tape and provides landowners with the regulatory relief necessary to quickly remove dead and dying trees from their property,” Mr. Davis declared.

However, although the forests are already burning, the Senate has no timeline for passage of the administration’s initiative. Patty Kirchner, who lost a home in the Arizona blaze, told a reporter, “The thing that hurts the worst is the loss of the forest. Structures can be rebuilt, but the forest takes so long.” Preserving those woodlands will take the sort of common sense tree-thinning projects that Republicans and Democrats both agree are necessary. The Senate should stop fiddling and move the Healthy Forests Initiative forward.

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